Sakura and Snow
By Natalie Baan
Meticulously Seishirou finished folding the shirt, then laid it on top of the others. Frowning, he stared down at the small, neatly rectangular pile. A handful of ties were rolled up next to it; slacks and jackets had already been sorted through and a select few packed.
But had it really been worth it to come back just for this--some pieces of favored clothing, a couple of odds and ends that he certainly could have replaced without much trouble?
His gaze swept the bedroom restlessly. He found himself unable to settle on what bothered him the most. One moment everything was too perfectly, jarringly ordinary, the cheerful sunshine spilling through the window onto the tidily made bed, the empty plant stand still waiting for new pots to fill it, the familiar and unchanged proportions of walls, angles, and open spaces, and in the next he'd be struck by wrongness like a surprise assault out of the dark, the wrenching awareness that nothing was as it should be.
Muttering wordlessly under his breath, a low grumble of aggravation, Seishirou turned abruptly toward the dresser. He'd been entirely right in his decision not to return to living in this apartment--far better to make a new start, someplace without any associations, where he wouldn't constantly find himself waiting for a slim, graceful figure to step out of the bathroom, pajama-clad and smiling shyly, where he wouldn't keep straining after half-heard, probably imaginary sounds, wondering if that could possibly be a footstep, a whisper of cloth, the quiet opening or closing of a cabinet door. If he had been more cunning, he would have simply hired someone to come and clean the place out for him, or abandoned it all and bought new things--he was running on sheer stubbornness, and had been since he'd left the Clamp School campus, pushing himself forward through a constant, dragging resistance of unease, only because he refused to let such an inchoate force control his actions. Just through the next turnstile, just one more flight of steps, just around another corner and through that door...just a few more items now, and then he would leave all the rest and arrange for someone else to dispose of it. If there was anything for him to prove here, he'd surely already done so. Brusquely he pulled open the dresser's middle drawer.
The color stilled him, as immediate as the quiet shock of glimpsing some extraordinary beauty. Wine red, heart's red, rich, dark, and vibrant...and he knew, he knew that he should not touch it, even as his hand stole slowly forward, as his fingertips brushed the cashmere, both knowledge and volition helpless to prevent the gesture. So soft...he remembered touching that softness in the store, running his fingers over it, gauging its perfection, its sublime fittingness, and then touching it again, later, this time with warmth and the rhythmic movement of breath beneath it, the solid reality of a body, of muscle and bone.
Snap and rip and tear, the flesh so fragile beneath the fragile skin....
Distracted by memories, he had lifted the sweater out of the drawer--it spilled easily, almost fluidly out of its folds, lay near weightlessly across his arms as he held it up. His fingers tightened on it, but gently. After a moment of hesitation, of mere looking, he brought it toward his face, compelled by the irresistible impulse to brush his cheek against it, as he had once before, what seemed like a small eternity ago. He bowed his head over the delicate wool, touched his lips to it, and the scent--
--like a physical blow, so that he bent abruptly forward over the dresser, his hands knotted into fists in the cashmere and his face buried in them as he struggled to catch his breath. Subtle notes of sandalwood and cinnamon incense, of a traditional adzuki soap, of skin warmed by close contact and desire--sudden shock of involuntary memory, of the shifting of another's body against his, of tracing the long, arching lines of throat and chest and thigh, an overwhelming barrage of instants, of intimacies, of sexual fire, strain, and release. And so sweet, so painful that it stood out even among all the rest, among all those flashes of Subaru in ecstasy and in the most ordinary of everyday moments--of Subaru meditating in candlelight, of Subaru laughing in his arms, apron-clad, up against the refrigerator door, of Subaru sitting motionless in the hush of a profound sorrow or lying innocently curled up in the sun, pretending to sleep--there was the memory of those tender hands cradling his face, of those green eyes smiling back at him, night-dark yet luminous with passion.
I love Seishirou-san.
Someone knocked at the apartment's front door, a light, fluttery tapping, and Seishirou actually jumped. Somewhat dazed, he looked around. It couldn't be...no, it couldn't. A dull, unfocused anger followed swiftly upon that flicker of senseless disappointment, and he decided that he'd pretend no one was home. Nobody should be looking for him here anyway. The mysterious intruder knocked once more as Seishirou stared blankly about the bedroom, trying to figure out where he was in what he was doing--and then again, as a female voice called out, its stridency muffled somewhat by the closed door, as well as by a hint of uncertainty, "Sakurazuka-san? I'm sorry if this is a bad time. But...."
He did not want to talk to Mrs. Nakamura. In fact, there wasn't enough "no" in all of Tokyo to properly express his distaste for the idea. But apparently she had some mystical knowledge of his presence and wasn't about to leave him in peace. He'd better get this over with. Leaving the sweater on top of the dresser, he prowled out into the living room. As he reached the door, habit made him check himself, made him set aside his irritation and reach for the mask of smiling normalcy--and realize, with a small jolt of disquiet, that it didn't feel nearly as secure as he might wish. His face felt stiff, the smile awkward and slightly off; his eyes burned faintly with the suppression of that persistently recurring ache of loss. He hesitated for an instant, then dug his emergency glasses out of the drawer of the telephone table and put them on before opening the door. "Yes?"
"Ah! Oh! Sakurazuka-san! Nadeshiko-san said that Kumiko-san said that she'd seen you come in."
The fabled seers of Japan's past must surely quail before the power of Nakamura-san's local gossip network. "Yes, but I'm going to be going out again very soon," he said, as briskly as he could without being actually offensive. "I'm afraid I'm a little bit busy at the moment...."
"Well, of course, but I just had to stop by and say hello, since nobody had even seen you for more than a week! And right after that awful earthquake that destroyed Ginza and Shinjuku and did so much damage in Shibuya, too! I was terribly worried, you know, not having heard anything from you."
"Ah, that's very kind...."
Nakamura-san half-bowed; in her fleecy white sweater and green sweatpants, she rather resembled a dandelion gone to seed and bobbing up and down in a gentle breeze. As she straightened, she craned her neck slightly, her gaze flickering past him to dart about the visible area of the apartment. "And your friend? Is he all right too?"
Friend? World and conversation both seemed to grind to a halt as Seishirou stood there, one hand on the half-open door. Staring down at Mrs. Nakamura, he tried to stretch her words to fit his relationship with Subaru, the fatal battle of Seals and Angels, the unfathomable complexity of love and loss, and failed utterly.
"No," he murmured at last, his voice very gentle but deathly flat. "No, I'm afraid he...isn't."
"Oh. Oh." Nakamura-san's mouth gaped open in shock, then pursed up in a pink bow of exaggerated but unfeigned distress. Tears suddenly glittered in her eyes. "I'm so sorry. Everyone will be...I mean, that's so sad."
Apparently he and Subaru had become a public item in Nakamura-san's circle. Subaru probably would have been mortified. And now Seishirou would never get to see if he might someday have become inured to it...if it might eventually have made him smile.
"Sorry," he said, controlling his voice assiduously, keeping it neutral and perhaps just a trifle numb, as might be expected of someone still in shock and grieving. "Not to be rude, but I do have to...." He lifted his shoulders, an inarticulate, aimless shrug, letting her fill in whatever she thought one ought to be doing in his circumstances.
"Of course! Of course! Sakurazuka-san, I just wanted you to know--while you were gone, I had the superintendent let me into your apartment to water your plants. Though I only found the one in the kitchen--I thought you had more? But anyway, I took good care of it, for when you got back."
He couldn't quite work up the energy to be appalled by this invasion. Murmuring some appropriate noises of gratitude, he managed to close the door at last on her wide-eyed expression of earnest, well-meaning sympathy. Leaning briefly against the door frame, listening instinctively despite his distraction in order to follow the muffled sounds as the woman finally retreated, he wondered if he had looked as wrung out as he felt. The absurdity of the situation struck him then; shaking his head, a bemused half smile tugging at his lips, he stepped up out of the genkan. As he crossed the room, heading back to finish his desultory packing, he glanced into the kitchenette, reminded by Nakamura-san's fussing. In the narrow window, the ivy's lush greenery cascaded down around the big-eyed, cartoonish planter. He stopped short and stared at it.
Why is your ivy in a pig pot?
He laughed suddenly, surprising himself, a low chuckle breaking from him, scattering that feeling of dull emptiness like a breath of moving air bringing life to a sealed-up room. Turning away, he walked more briskly toward the bedroom door, energy and purpose renewed--and he jerked to a halt in the doorway, his eye caught by a flash of color.
A dark-red puddle spreading across the wooden floor....
He must have left the sweater lying halfway off the dresser, he realized after a moment, and the slight weight of the fabric had been enough to bring it slithering it down onto the floor. The shock of the sight still hurt, though. Because for an instant he'd truly mistaken it for blood and hadn't known where it had come from? Because it had reminded him, yet again, of that stain flowering on the white shikifuku, the stabbing sensation of what in hindsight had been panic, the pain of already realizing, on some level, that he was too late to save anything? Because one of the very few physical reminders of Subaru and what they had shared lay crumpled in a heap at the foot of the dresser like something discarded, something meaningless?
Slowly Seishirou moved around the edge of the door frame. Leaning his back against the wall, he curled his hands into his pockets as he stared broodingly at the sweater. Such unpredictable shifts--it was so different from before, when his inner world had been a bland, sure equilibrium, occasionally spiked by interest and intensity, the focused energy of the hunt, the kill. These swift changes in his mood were nearly as difficult to deal with as their unfamiliar and uncomfortable content: apathy, distress, quiet melancholy tinged with a bleak, vaguely forlorn nostalgia. Would all of this fade as time went by and the immediacy of that loss receded, smoothed out like a wind-rippled pool? Perhaps. Would he ultimately be the same as he'd once been?
And did he want to be? Seishirou's eyes narrowed, disquieted and thoughtful.
I don't know....
If he could have all of this to do over, knowing what he now knew, he'd certainly want to make different choices. But...he wouldn't be capable of that knowing, not even remotely so, without having already gone down that path. A paradox.
Would it be better to have Subaru alive, and himself ignorant, certain to make the same blind and stupid mistakes, unable to appreciate the true significance of what he had?
It was a complicated gift that Subaru had given him, he realized, with ramifications that he knew he didn't yet perceive, let alone grasp: a tangled web of threads that led to mysterious, equivocal places, to dark and sudden drops, unexpected snares, a whirling confusion like the killing storm of sakura petals--but also to flashes of refuge, to memories of profound quiet and piercing, exquisite beauty, all the richer, all the keener for the contrast. He certainly couldn't say that it was entirely pleasant...but it had brought surprising new shades of color and value to the formerly monotone world of his life.
And he was discovering that, for all its pain and tumult, it was inexplicably precious.
Because it was the last gift that he would ever have from Subaru.
His mouth curved in the merest hint of a smile, neither predatory nor ironic. Slowly he pushed off from the wall and walked across the room. Reaching down, he curled his fingers into the heap of cashmere, picked up the fallen sweater, and then turned to resume his interrupted packing.
Whatever the future might bring, whatever choices he would make....
Nothing, after all, would ever be the same.
Standing in the genkan, Seishirou set his suitcase down out in the hallway. Taking the ivy from the phone table, he tucked the pot securely into the crook of his arm, and then glanced back one last time. Through the bedroom doorway, he could just glimpse the red sweater laid out flat atop the bed, a swath of flame burning in the brilliant slant of sun.
Pulling out his sunglasses, he put them on and briefly swept the whole apartment with his gaze, the place now dim and shadowed, like an illusion or some empty corner of the other world. At last he turned and stepped across the threshold, closing the door firmly behind himself.